Public Health at the Kumbh Mela

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Dispatches from the Kumbh

– Logan Plaster

February 6, 2013

 

Diya

February 6th was one of the main bathing days for the Kumbh Mela and for once, jet lag came in handy. Dawn is perhaps the best time to witness the ancient ritual of bathing where the Ganga – or Ganges – river meets the Yamuna, and I awoke with time to spare. I descended from the hill where our tent was perched with Dhruv Kazi, a cardiologist from San Francisco who completed our team of four from FXB.

We heard the Kumbh long before we entered its hazy, golden streets. In fact, if you close your eyes anywhere in the river valley where this pop-up mega city has been erected, you can hear the constant, occasionally thunderous hum – car horns, public announcements and sacred song punctuated by the occasional blast of fireworks. But don’t close your eyes for too long. Cars and motorbikes speed down muddy make-shift roads made of endless connections of steel plates. One must keep their wits about them to walk safely on the Mela’s bustling avenues. But whether eyes wide open or shut, one can appreciate the constantly shifting thrum of the Mela and its masses.

The crowds are thick but subdued near the water, some anticipating and others savoring the memory of the morning’s sacred dip. The morning sun is full and low on the horizon, shrouded in a haze of smog. A family gathers at the water’s edge to light a paper diya – a handmade paper boat bearing a small, lit candle. Their prayers complete, they launch the offering into the Sangam – the confluence of the holy rivers. A long-haired Sadhu – or religious ascetic – plunges fastidiously into the shallows again and again, drawing the attention of a gaggle of foreign photographers. A woman squats shivering on the bank and tries to cover her cold, wet shoulders with a dry sari.

The crowds are quiet, attentive to the task at hand. And I, too, keep silent, feeling more than ever that I am in another’s world. I put my camera away and give what I hope is a friendly nod to a boy selling diyas made of large leaves. He knows I am a stranger, but his smile bridges the gap and welcomes me all the same.

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